Even though I grew up on Walt Disney’s animated classics, the Disney Studios live-action films didn’t really interest me for whatever reason. That was probably because I thought that the only live-action movies I needed to see were the Star Wars films. So anyway, I didn’t grow up with Old Yeller (1957). I never had it on tape. I never had it on DVD. If I saw it on the Disney Channel as a toddler, I don’t remember. I don’t recall ever seeing it in school. So when I finally decided to join the Disney Movie Club last month, I made sure that I picked up Old Yeller on Blu-ray to fix another one of my “cinematic crimes.”
Since the story of the film is so well known, it would be pointless to go over it again. Instead, I’ll focus on why I think it’s such a great film. It’s because of how serious it takes its subject. Like The Yearling before it, Old Yeller isn’t just about a boy and his friendly animal – it’s about the relationship between the two. In The Yearling, it was a boy and his fawn. Here, it’s a boy and his dog. Travis (Tommy Kirk) hates Old Yeller at first, but then learns to love him. In the end, he must shoot the dog after it comes down with hydrophobia.
Old Yeller would simply not be made today because family films overall like these are not made. Director Robert Stevenson (Disney’s go-to helmer for live action movies) and writers Fred Gispon (who wrote the novel) and William Tunberg don’t completely eradicate humor from the story, but they handle it as delicately as any great adult drama should be. And it helps that the performances they get from the small cast are truly moving. Even Spike the Dog, who plays Old Yeller, gives a strangely delicate performance. How the filmmakers managed to get the perfect expressions from that dog, I’ll never know.
The film is also incredibly moving because Travis’ relationships with younger brother Arliss (Kevin Corcoran) and mother Katie (Dorothy McGuire) are just as important. All three (four if you count Old Yeller) main characters are so well defined over the course of just 84 minutes that we become a member of the family. None of them are just caricatures, created just for film. These are realistic people (and animals) that we all know in life.
Old Yeller is also a perfect film to cover on Mother’s Day. I’m starting to finally appreciate McGuire, especially after seeing her here and in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion. She plays the perfect mother here, helping her children realize the importance of their actions and why they must grow up. It’s tough to do on screen, but she makes it look easy without being preachy.
The Disney Movie Club exclusive disc looks fine for a film of its age, but the big disappointment is that none of the two-disc DVD’s bonus features are presented here. NONE. I can’t stress that enough. So if you have the DVD, don’t get rid of it. The disc does have subtitles, but these aren’t accessible on the menu, which only presents “Play” and “Chapters.” It’s an awful disappointment that all that content created for the DVD isn’t here. (I’ll also say that there’s absolutely NO EXCUSE for Old Yeller not to be available on Blu-ray for the average consumer who doesn’t want to join a movie club.)
Old Yeller is one of the cherished classics in the Disney library. I truly wish I had grown up with this film and its important lesson that life moves on. You can’t dwell on the sadness forever.